Friday, 31 May 2019

The Coast of Bohemia

I'm afraid that, to adapt a phrase, Lego continua. Box after box, bag after bag, piece by piece: I've developed Lego-related calluses on my fingers from tugging apart resistant brick-on-brick combos. Normal service will be resumed soon, however.

Meanwhile, I was reminded by one reader of my recent blog post that Mark Rylance, the Shakespearean actor and sometime director of the Globe Theatre, is a noted anti-Stratfordian. Good grief! If there is one subject guarantee to spark irrational Brexit-scale outrage on either side, it is the question of whether William Shakespeare of Stratford-upon-Avon was "William Shakespeare" the playwright. "Proving" that he was not has been a minor industry and parlour game for a long time; to which, in the end, the only measured response is "Of course he wrote the bloody plays, you grinning whoreson halfwit, now have at you!" [draws dagger from doublet].

To calm myself down, I came up with this questionnaire-flowchart of Shakespeare authorship:

1. Is it possible for some grammar school-educated oik from Stratford-upon- Avon, the son of a mere glover, to be a world-class genius?

If yes, what is the problem? If no, what is your problem?

2. Is the problem that said half-educated genius could not possibly have known or, better, experienced all the things mentioned or explored in his plays? That he must have been some aristocratic know-all who'd done a spot of hedge-laying and soldiering and consorting with fairy kings and occasionally been a woman or Roman emperor or marooned sorcerer-despot to boot?

If yes, have you never heard of "books", "conversation", and "making things up"? Besides, get hold of an atlas – it's a sort of "book" – and show me where lies the coast of Bohemia, sirrah (Winter's Tale, see this).

3. Is the problem that Shakespeare's monument in Stratford-upon-Avon looks like "a self-satisfied pork butcher" (John Dover Wilson)? That Shakespeare doesn't look like the Greatest. Writer. Ever?

If yes, allow me to introduce you to Mr. Jonson, Mr. Johnson, Mr. Pope, Mrs. Evans Lewes ("No, please, call me George"), and a thousand other premier league writers blessed with a good face for radio. Seeing as we're talking theatre, aren't you ashamed to be so in thrall to Central Casting?

4. Is the problem that "Shakespeare" was so successful as an actor-manager and putative playwright that he made shedloads of money which he invested in a BIG house? That the "Shakespeare" of record was a litigious tax-dodger and absentee husband and father?  That he applied for a coat of arms, even? Does all that seem somehow, you know, a touch vulgar? Would you prefer your playwright to be an unworldly, garret-dwelling aesthete in odd socks?

If yes, welcome to Hollywood-upon-Thames. It's showtime! Put your sixpence in the box [1] and let us entertain you!

5. Is the problem that some, if not all, of the plays may well have been collaborative efforts, despite bearing the one Big Star author's name?

If yes, again, welcome to Hollywood-upon-Thames. Sorry, Mr. Middleton, but you know how it is: maybe next time?

6. Is the problem that Shakespeare's surviving signatures are inconsistent and illegible, suggesting a less than fluent penmanship, and by a completely illegitimate extension, poor literacy?

If yes, then I enthusiastically claim William Shakespeare as a left-hander, not for an age but for all time. I expect his desk was unbelievably untidy, too. If you could find it behind the mountain of crumpled, illegible drafts.

7. Is the problem ... Oh, I give up. Daggers it is, then, Kit Marlowe style, for "a great reckoning in a little room". Come on, sir!

Thou callest that a knife? No, THIS is a knife! [2]

1. Recent archaeological excavations at the site of The Rose theatre in Southwark have turned up fragments of the clay money boxes used for entrance takings, which were subsequently broken open. Hence, "box office".
2. What, you've never seen "Crocodile Dundee"?

Sunday, 26 May 2019

Martin Carthy

Last Sunday we went to see a concert billed as "Teatime with Martin and Eliza Carthy", part of a new, rather civilized development at the university's Turner Sims venue, where a performance begins around 3:00 in the afternoon, has a break for tea and cake, and continues on until 6:00 or so, leaving you with the rest of the evening free. Sadly, Eliza Carthy had to cancel due to bronchitis, leaving her dad to carry the entire show single-handed. No problem: one man, his guitar, and a bottomless repertoire of songs and stories. It was brilliant. Except ... Well, we'll come to that.

Martin Carthy may not be a household name even in Britain, but he has been one of the most influential musicians working within the British folk music scene; indeed, "legend" is not too strong a word. His early partnership with fiddler Dave Swarbrick was an outstanding success of the so-called "folk revival" of the 1960s. Around 1969, keeping a friend company as furtive underage drinkers, I saw Carthy and Swarbrick perform at the Red Lion Folk Club in Stevenage, and it changed my life. A vague feeling that folk music was interesting became a profound passion, and from 1969 to about 1974 my young life was in lockstep with the advent of British electric folk (something I've already described in a post on Swarb's death in 2016). I saw Martin Carthy again, a year later, performing solo at another local club, and as a nascent guitar player myself was inspired and excited by his open-tuned, percussive style of playing. His sonorous voice, unamplified, filled the room, actually a school assembly hall.

He was 29 then; he is 78 now. Fifty years is a long time to have been a legend: on Sunday the auditorium was filled with a mainly grey-headed horde of admirers, eager to hear him, and ready to forgive any age-related shortcomings. A lean, large-headed little figure on stage (like so many older men, he seems to have shrunk) and now using both a microphone and an amp plugged into his acoustic Martin guitar, his bold, skipping accompaniments are as strong as ever but, unsurprisingly, his voice is not. It's by no means weak or faltering – he's still a wonderful singer – but it's no longer the vocal foghorn it was 50 years ago. More problematic – again unsurprisingly for a 78-year old – is his memory. A few times over the course of a long and presumably largely unrehearsed performance he did lose his way in a song, retreating to the folkie's resort of "dum de dum de dum", or a couple of times a more emphatic and final "oh, bugger it!" Naturally, an audience of fans – many themselves all-too familiar with the challenge of unexpected "senior moments" – loved it and cheered him on.

At the interval, he was out in the lobby selling and signing CDs and posters, gripping and grinning like a true pro, uncomplainingly posing for selfies and listening to the "I heard you back when..." anecdotes he must have heard a million times (no, of course I didn't). Which made me think: this man, at 78, still needs the money. Despite everything, the acclaim, the albums, the performances, he is still essentially living that folk-scene life, going from club to club, stage to stage, no doubt driving himself, although by now I'd hope he has a network of folk-scene friends around the country to crash with, rather than sleeping in the car or some anonymous hotel. Having made the commitment to guitar and song as a young man back in the sixties, he's kept at it, performing on Sunday for an audience of mainly comfortably-retired professionals and public servants, contemporaries and early fans who made different, less risky but no less admirable choices and commitments when young. Which also made me think: there really should be a "national living treasure" pension scheme for exceptional but unremunerative careers like that of Martin Carthy. An MBE is nice, but doesn't pay the electricity bill. No-one, at his level of achievement and at the age of 78, should be pushing his own CDs and posters at a trestle table like some dodgy market trader, while the audience scoffs tea and cake.

Here is a link to one of the songs he had to abandon part-way through, but which I particularly enjoyed nonetheless: Adam McNaughtan's amusing three-minute rendering of Hamlet, "Oor Hamlet". And here's the Dynamic Duo in a live BBC Radio 2 broadcast in 1988. It's wonderful stuff, but I have to say I'm not a "folkie" these days, and haven't been since the late seventies. I think my enthusiasm was finally killed off by one of my work colleagues at my first job as a trainee at the University Library of Bristol in 1978. Paul was the consummate folkie: an extrovert, a big-bearded CAMRA member and morris dancer, with an encyclopaedic knowledge of the folk scene, its performers, recordings, legends, and lore. Initially, I enjoyed working with him. But, quite soon, I began to realise that, although he was clearly much-loved by many, I really did not like him very much. From where I stood – an ardent and probably rather self-righteous and judgmental trades unionist recently emerged from a hotbed of student activism – he was an appalling reactionary, a smirking, sexist bully, who expected (and generally got) indulgence for some truly crass behaviour towards his female colleagues. Think Boris Johnson without the all-consuming ambition, and you won't be far off. So, by extension, the reactionary elements of traditional life, embodied in so much traditional song, were suddenly highlighted for me, and the music lost most of its remaining charm. The folk revival may have begun on the political left, but ultra-conservatism linked with a ruralist, nativist, roots-patriotic frame of mind has long been a persistent undercurrent in British culture: see, for example, a very interesting, if tendentious, essay "The Hangman's Ancient Sunlight", which should be compulsory reading for all folkies. Rural life? No thanks.

But seeing Martin Carthy again reminded me of the other side of folk: the ability of one performer to command the attention of an audience by matching songs and anecdotes from an enormous repertoire to the mood in the room, creating an atmosphere of goodwill, laughter, and shared emotion by tapping into a common reservoir of musical heritage, even if occasionally ... um ... Oh, bugger it! Listen, here's another one, but first let me tell you a story...

Living legend pockets a tenner

Wednesday, 22 May 2019

Bricking It

This blog, picture-making, and indeed pretty much everything else have been sitting sulking on the back seat (or simmering on the back burner) for a while, as this past week has been LEGO™ Week, something I've been putting off for months. It's been quite enjoyable, though, rattling and riffling through many boxes of plastic bricks, looking for just the right piece, and quite therapeutic, too, like doing an enormous 3D jigsaw puzzle. No, I haven't lost my marbles, although it does seem that I am, in certain cases, several bricks short of a set. I'd better explain.

For many years our son, like so many children of his generation born in the 1980s and 90s – that is, before the internet and gaming swept most conventional toys into the attic – was a LEGO fanatic [1]. Christmas? Birthdays? Visit from doting grandparents? There was never really any question of what he would want: in fact, he was generally able to supply the precise catalogue number of the desirable sets.

Older readers who have not been parents may be thinking: huh? Lego, to anyone over 50, means a box of clunky red, white, blue, and yellow bricks of various sizes, that combined well enough in the hands of a 5-year-old to build things composed of right angles and flat surfaces, like houses or ... well, just houses, really. Anything naturally curvilinear could only be approximated in a deeply unsatisfactory way that prefigured the pixelated "jaggies" of the early days of digital imaging. But Lego in the late 20th century underwent a dramatic reconfiguration that transformed the product from a superior but limited toddlers' construction set to a must-have pastime for children around the crucial pre-teen, toy-buying age of 8-12. Mainly boys, it has to be said, although some lame, rather stereotyped "pink princess" attempts were made to attract girls. Incredibly, Lego became cool.

Someone at Lego Central was, it has to be said, a genius of marketing. Sets were now themed, packaged robustly and attractively, consistently branded, and with photographic box-art, in much the same way that upmarket plastic model construction kits have always been, but with the addition on the more expensive sets of gatefold lids, opening onto transparent windows giving a peek at the contents. Alliances were forged with certain key major brands – Star Wars, for example, and later Lord of the Rings or Harry Potter – and not entirely dissimilar lines of own-brand equivalents were developed, each with its own distinctive livery. If you were after a particular theme – explorers, say, or pirates – you could spot the sets on the shelf right away. Thematic sets were pitched at different price points, ranging from what you might call luxury "Christmas" items – big two-to-three foot boxes, containing several large vehicles, a shaped base, and a number of characters equipped with weapons and paraphernalia designed to be held in the famously fingerless Lego mitten hand – to small, four-inch "pocket money" sets with just a single person and a few bricks and pieces.

Crucial to all this was the creation of specially moulded, non-brick pieces, often unique to a particular range or even box, which disrupted the essentially rectilinear nature of the Lego system, but were still consistent with and swappable within it. Rockets, cars, spooky castles with trapdoors, and elaborate machineries of death and destruction became possible. Even the little Lego people acquired cartoonish personalities, with beards, moustaches, stubble, and stylised macho snarls and smirks printed onto the standard yellow, barrel-shaped head, and various outfits and uniforms printed onto the bodies (did I mention Lego is mainly targeted at boys? [2]). Not to mention swappable hair-pieces, hats, and helmets; pirates, for example, got a variety of  peg-legs and hooks to replace the standard-issue legs and hands. Brilliantly, however, and quite unlike most model construction kits, there has never been any suggestion in the box illustrations that you are buying a representation of the real world, no pretence that a Lego ninja warrior or astronaut looks anything like a human being: the Lego-ness of Lego World is sold and celebrated with a practically post-modern degree of irony. Indeed, the Lego computer games and even movies (no, really) of more recent years are relentlessly and tiresomely knowing and in-jokey about the nature and limitations of Lego. But for an imaginative ten-year-old boy, capable of close concentration, delayed gratification, and a certain level of suspension of disbelief, this is a winning formula.

Anyway, the upshot of all this is that we have an awful lot of Lego in what used to be our son's bedroom, and in order to make a start on repairing and redecorating the real-life cracked plaster, water-stained ceiling, and general shabbiness of the room it all needs to be gathered together and disposed of to a charity shop [3]. Which is a problem, because the whole point of Lego is that it is a "system" toy: every bit can be recombined with every other bit, creating new scenarios, vehicles, and people. And, over the years, has been. Which is the challenge I now face.

I suppose I could simply fill a few large rubble sacks with random bricks and bits and hand them over to Oxfam, in a  Lego version of "kill them all, and let God sort them out". But the public-spirited, orderly librarian in me won't allow that. Where the boxes and instructions have survived, I am determined to reconstruct them, then disassemble and re-bag the pieces, so that some other child can have the pleasure of playing with them just as Lego intended. Hence LEGO™ Week, which shows every sign of becoming Lego Month.

Anyone seen a loose black ninja hat? Or a flat yellow square tile, with a rotating grey centre?

1. Hereafter "Lego". Too shouty, all in caps...
2. I notice that my daughter, who is keen on film, has radically regendered the camera operators and directors (originally all male) in a couple of "Lego Movies" sets, simply by removing and replacing the heads.
3. It's possible, I suppose, that some of the sets may now be sought after and valuable, but I think we've had our money's worth out of them, several times over.

Thursday, 16 May 2019

Flat View

Looking SE at 19:20 on 3/5/19
(the red is the reflected glow of sunset in the west)

A few years ago my partner got a new job in Bristol University. As our Southampton house was not in a sellable state – and also, if I'm honest, because I wasn't quite ready to uproot myself from 30 years of residence, even to a considerably more attractive city – she found a flat in which to spend the working week, while I stayed in Southampton, on the assumption I would be attempting to clear, repair, and decorate the house, in anticipation of a relocation in a year or two. But, as it turned out, she didn't enjoy the new post, and moved on after a couple of years.

Looking S at 17:58 on 3/5/19

However, we'd become attached to the flat, and have kept it as a useful weekend bolt-hole. Not least because it has a truly spectacular view over the Avon Gorge. You can spend entire mornings just watching the light change on the wooded slopes and the tidal ebb and flow of the river, and the window over the kitchen sink has a westward view onto some preposterously gaudy sunsets as you do the washing up. Naturally, whenever I'm there I end up leaning out of the window and photographing the view. These three pictures, taken over a couple of days earlier this month, give you some sense of the full panorama as you look from left (south-east) to right (south-west).

Looking SW at 09:50 on 5/3/19

Perhaps because I spent my adolescent years in a fourth floor flat, I have a liking for this kind of elevated view. In fact, it's sufficiently high up that, when someone living lower down the Gorge celebrated some event by letting off fireworks, the rockets were exploding outside our living-room window which, while pretty, was also rather too like being under attack by anti-aircraft fire.

Saturday, 11 May 2019

Photo Voices

Dead White Men in Black
in National Portrait Gallery
So, Congratulations
Simon Armitage.
It seems
You are Poet Laureate
A little unfair, perhaps, to invoke E.J. Thribb (17½), but Armitage is endowed with a very fine example of what a friend, a retired teacher who used to teach literature in secondary school, calls "the poetry voice", something he finds deeply irritating. I expect you know the one he means: that hushed sing-song that so many poetry-readers adopt, as if the full understanding of poetry required the use of a special, reverend tone, pitched somewhere between a prayer and the incantation of a spell. Such irritations are catchy: I find I'm annoyed by the Poetry Voice, too, now.

Once you think about it, there are a lot of such specialised, off-the-peg "voices" out there. I am particularly annoyed by the Enthusiasm Voice, the one adopted by most expert popularisers when acting as TV and radio presenters, that involves periodically scrunching the voice into little constipated gurgles of delight, the way you might try to persuade a toddler that cabbage is yummy. Then there's the languid, heavy-breathing Mystery Voice, used on nearly every BBC trailer for a drama, as if the continuity reader had just emerged from a lengthy session in an opium den. Oh, and there's the Hysterical Sports Voice, the Nature Documentary Voice, and the Wacky Comedy Voice, and ... I'm sure you can think of plenty of others. Their common denominator is that the speaker always seems to feel that something extra needs adding to the bare facts of what is being said or described, like more salt or a good sprinkling of glitter, in order to bring out some quality which they fear the hearer may otherwise miss. Goal! GOOOOOAAAAAL!!! Wait, what, I missed that, did someone just score?

Behind these stock voices there are quite often original and unmistakable voices, of course: in Britain one immediately thinks of David Attenborough, Judi Dench, David Coleman, Alice Roberts, or Roger McGough. Such folk tend to become ubiquitous (never a problem, I feel, where professor Roberts is concerned), and so synonymous with their usual subject matter that their way of speaking becomes the way of speaking about it. Which must be both annoying and flattering. Of course, some voices are both distinctive and irritating in equal measure: how on earth did Bernard Hill's gruff monotone ever get him a regular gig as a nature documentary voiceover, or – my current bête noire – TLS editor Stig Abell's infuriatingly repetitive sing-song a slot as a BBC Radio 4 arts presenter?

National Portrait Gallery

Which made me wonder, does photography have voices? On the face of it, this is ridiculous: what could be more mute than a photograph? But I suppose what I mean is: do the most influential photographers have a distinctive voice, which becomes The Voice of their particular genre? I don't mean metaphorically, and I don't mean "voice" as a synonym for "style". I mean, do you usually hear a particular kind of voice when you look at particular genres of photographs?

Call me strange, but I think I do. I certainly hear a version of the Poetry Voice when looking at much self-consciously rhapsodic landscape work, merging into the Enthusiasm Voice when repetitive thematic subject matter becomes prominent (Look! Lighthouses!! Aren't they great!?). I hear a hipsterish anomie when looking at so much affectless contemporary portraiture; I hear a louche drawl when looking at nude models deployed in bizarre circumstances. And so on: there's a Concerned Journalist Voice, a Constipated Perfectionist Voice, a Distrait Artist Voice... I'm sure we could put names to the many ventriloquists and imitators of these voices, too, although it might be harder to identify their originators. I confess that whenever I see the work of Ansel Adams (whom I do not revere) I hear the voice I imagine belonging to Robert Crumb's Mr. Natural. They do have a certain family resemblance, don't they?

But maybe that's one way we know good, original work when we see it? It has acquired no voice yet, telling us what we already know, and forces us to see it – really see it, or even listen to it, rather than dismiss it as old news – as if for the first time. A little synaesthesia is often a good sign that magic is about.  I think of some favourite words given by Shakespeare to Bottom the Weaver, which I was delighted to see, hear, and taste in Westminster Cathedral last week:
I have had a dream – past the wit of man to say what dream it was ... The eye of man hath not heard, the ear of man hath not seen, man’s hand is not able to taste, his tongue to conceive, nor his heart to report what my dream was. I will get Peter Quince to write a ballad of this dream. It shall be called “Bottom’s Dream” because it hath no bottom.
in National Portrait Gallery

But, to return to poetry: perhaps the most outstanding contemporary poet (certainly so in my estimation), Alice Oswald, allegedly turned down the opportunity to be considered for the Laureateship because she wanted to be in the running when Simon Armitage's five-year stint as Oxford Professor of Poetry comes to an end this year: a far more prestigious gig, in my view. Unusually, this fixed-term post is elected, and all graduates of the university may register to vote. I have shamelessly canvassed every Oxford graduate I know to register now and vote for Alice Oswald when the time comes (23rd May - 20th June), but if any reader of this blog also qualifies, then you know what to do (you'll need to know when your degree was conferred, and go to the registration site here). A world which contains professors Alice Roberts and Alice Oswald cannot be all bad, can it?

Alice Oswald
(photograph: Jim Wileman/The Guardian)

Wednesday, 8 May 2019

One Of Those Days In England

We have just had what we call a "bank holiday weekend" in Britain. That is, a weekend followed by a Monday on which banks (and, traditionally, most other things) are shut, and all but essential workers get a day off. Nowadays, however, "essential" seems to include "people who work in shops", as shopping seems to have become the outer limit of what the general populace can conceive of as "leisure".

Also traditional is the miserable accompanying weather. In fact, we were promised rain – and many did get rain – but we spent the long weekend in Bristol, and the West Country was bathed in chilly sunshine. Perfect walking weather, and we headed for Dyrham Park, a National Trust property in the Cotswolds with hundreds of acres of land, gardens, and deer park to wander in as if it were your own. Certainly, there were few enough other visitors to spoil the illusion, despite the dispiriting traffic queues encountered along the way there (another traditional bank holiday feature). I expect the shops in Bath and Bristol were very busy, or maybe there was some bloody festival on somewhere.

Talking of Roy Harper ("One Of Those Days In England"), have I already mentioned that he has now taken control of his own back catalogue, and sells remastered vinyl and CD albums from his own website? If not, I have now [1]. Roy may have figured less prominently in your own back catalogue than he did in mine, but he's one of the Great Originals, along with the likes of John Martyn, Nick Drake, and even Richard Thompson, crafting fine songs in a highly individual style that somehow never quite elevated them into the Premier League of popular music, despite creating the template for the platinum-plated careers of later imitators.

To their fans, of course, this Revered Outsider status has always been part of the attraction, an endorsement of our own refined tastes, but I don't suppose they themselves – those that have survived, that is – would have minded a bit more worldly success. On their own terms, of course, and certainly not the sort of ephemeral mega-success that headlines at glamping festivals and creates traffic queues on a May bank holiday weekend.

1. Actually, it seems I did, but nine years ago (Hats off to Christopher)! Hey, I can't be expected to remember everything I write here...

Saturday, 4 May 2019


Leonardo? He's the one with the two ninja swords, right? Five hundred years! Whoah... I had no idea he was meant to be that old, but chelonians are famous for their longevity, it's true. What's that, the 500th anniversary of his death, you say? What, so not a Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtle, then? Oh, that Leonardo...

Sorry. The subject of the Man from Vinci always seems to make me frisky (see my "Last Supper" post, Bun Fight). I think it's because of the blighted nature of his career. It's as if one of those "win some, lose some" divine curses had been laid on him. "Thou shalt be a totally awesome genius, but thine every artistic effort shall break, fade, slide off the wall like jelly at a children's party, or remain forever unfinished; war and stuff shall drive thee restlessly from place to place like a plastic bag in the wind; oh, and put not thy trust in princes, they never pay their bills". Was ever such a mighty reputation built on such a slender material legacy? So many half-finished projects, so many ideas, but so little to show for it. It makes Vermeer look like bloody Picasso.

But, boy, could he play guitar draw [1]. Earlier in the year we went to the showings of two of the twelve different touring selections of Leonardo drawings from the Royal Collection – one at Bristol City Museum, the other at Southampton City Art Gallery – and they are incredible: smaller than you expect, and yet far crisper than they ever appear in reproduction, even when squinted at in a dimly-lit gallery. Luckily, I keep an illuminated magnifier in a pocket (not as a connoisseur of Renaissance manuscripts, but as a substitute for reading glasses when scanning ingredient lists in the supermarket or interpreting menus by candlelight) so was able to give them the detailed scrutiny they deserve. Wow. Look at that. Really quite amazing.

Not a Leonardo...
(one of my "sketchbook" collages)

As a left-hander, though, I couldn't help but admire the creative chutzpah of his backwards writing. He wouldn't have got away with that at my school. As a persecuted minority, we lefties have been far too complaisant, compared with certain others, I think. I mean, members of the LGBTC++ community have my sympathy, but I don't suppose they have a daily problem with pens, scissors, tin-openers, pencil-sharpeners, doors, or pretty much anything else you care to name in this right-normative world. My own handwriting, after years of persecution by various leftie-intolerant teachers, is not so much back-to-front as inside-out, illegible even to me. But I can draw, too, if not to Leonardo standard.

So can David Hockney. I was in Hatchard's bookshop recently [2], and fell upon a beautiful new edition of his Six Fairy Tales From The Brothers Grimm, published by the Royal Academy. Those etchings had a major impact on me when I first saw them reproduced in a Sunday colour supplement in 1970, aged 16. I'd never seen anything like them before, and in a very direct way they gave permission to draw "badly" but expressively, using a mix of thin, exploratory lines, bold but awkward shapes, blank areas, and blocks of semi-mechanical shading and cross-hatching; something which freed me, and I'm sure many others, from the prison of "good drawing". For years after I became a devotee of the Rotring technical drawing pen, with its swappable nibs of different widths, each producing an even, fine line of indian ink.

Eventually, a few years ago, I managed to get hold of a copy of the original Six Fairy Tales edition (Petersburg Press, 1970) which turned out to be tiny – 3 inches by 4.5 inches, practically a miniature book – and does no justice at all to Hockney's etched illustrations, which are far larger. This new edition is bigger and more substantial, so I will be revisiting those illustrations intensively and fully expect to be "influenced" all over again. 1970? Seems like just yesterday.

Peter Maxwell Davies & Harrison Birtwistle
David Hockney, pen & ink on paper, 1970
(National Portrait Gallery)

Under the Influence, Somewhere in Greece
pen & ink on paper, 1973
(in a drawer somewhere)

1. Allusion to Ziggy Stardust aside, apparently Leonardo's initial talent was as a musician, playing the lira da braccio, a large, bowed instrument, like a violin with five strings and a pair of drone strings. No doubt there is a Leonardo drawing somewhere, showing a lira plugged into an amplifier.
2. Hatchard's is among the very best independent bookshops I know. It's on Piccadilly, pretty much opposite the Royal Academy, and well worth a visit if you're ever in London. Don't get it confused with the Waterstone's just down the road...

Wednesday, 1 May 2019

How The Light Gets In

View from Hay-on-Wye car park

When we were in Hay-on-Wye recently, I picked up the prospectus for an upcoming festival. Now, despite its relative remoteness, Hay is famous for two things: it was long ago established as a centre for the second-hand book trade by Richard Booth, self-styled King of Hay, and for several decades has also been the venue for a high-profile annual literary festival. I was curious to see what this other festival in Hay had to offer, not least because it had the deeply annoying title of HowTheLightGetsIn [1]. It slowly dawned on me, however, as I thumbed through the glossy pages of the brochure listing the events and attractions of "the world's largest philosophy and music festival" (not much competition there, surely) that this was the brainchild of an ambitious and highly-successful university acquaintance of mine, Hilary Lawson, and I experienced a familiar but unwelcome sensation.

In a moment of clarity – I think we may have been discussing the possibility of upgrading my payscale – I once said to my boss that although I might not be very ambitious, I am very competitive. He probably thought I was just being my usual contrarian self, but for me it was a genuine insight into my own personality. For one thing, it explained to me why I have always been uncomfortable in the company of the truly ambitious. Obviously, most of us would agree that the personality traits that attend that unfortunate condition do make such people poor company. If you want to have a laugh, enjoy life, and keep your stress levels low, my advice is: avoid the ambitious, and mix exclusively with the brilliant losers. But – and this may just be me – I realised that, despite a lack of ambition, I can nonetheless never help comparing myself with any ambitious types who happen to be in the same room. I am competitive. Which is stupid; there's no point in wondering how far or how fast you might have run, if you hadn't pointedly ignored the starting gun. Strategy: leave the room as soon as possible.

I think I've always been like this. I like to approach excellence as nearly as possible, but only with a minimum expenditure of effort; I suspect I have an aristocratic soul trapped within my plebeian body. My school reports are full of comments that may be summarised as, "Could go far, but probably won't; too bloody lazy". All true, sadly. Getting into higher education is one thing; leaving it having achieved escape velocity from Planet Ordinary is quite another. In retrospect, those university days are an unreal time when the ambitious, the clever plodders, the brilliant bluffers, and all the other personality types associated with intelligence are brought into a proximity they will never again share in life. Indeed, the crucial differences between them, at that stage, are still emerging and consolidating, like freshly-developing personality Polaroids. You probably don't even realise what it is you are becoming, until all the pictures are complete, and comparisons are possible. Nope, it seems you weren't ambitious, after all; just competitive.

One of the curses of finding yourself in one of  your country's elite educational establishments – even if more or less by accident [2] –  is that some of the highly ambitious types you once rubbed shoulders with will go on to be ubiquitous as politicians and media types. Every time you turn on the TV or radio, or pick up a newspaper, the chances are that one or more of them is bound to show up. I have a peculiar, one-way relationship with a prominent British journalist called David Aaronovitch, for example. For our first two terms at university we had rooms on the same college staircase, and became friends. He was Communist Party aristocracy (see his family memoir), but that struck me as a Good Thing: I was still naive enough to think of the CP as the ne plus ultra of left politics, never so much as having heard the word "Trotskyist" before. He also liked British folk-rock, as I did, had a similar sense of humour, and it seemed we were embarking on a long-term friendship.

However, much as I enjoyed the rough and tumble of student activism, I was not as turned on as he was by tedious backroom politicking and, although he had a distinctly hedonistic streak, he was not as turned on as I was by, um, turning on. But his complete neglect of his studies led him to fail his first year exams, which was convenient for the university authorities [3], and he was "sent down" (chucked out). He went off to Manchester University, became President of the National Union of Students, and I never heard from him again [4]. Except that his ambition ultimately led him to become a prominent journalist and all-purpose current-affairs pundit, hosting panel shows and discussions, so his voice and opinions remain all-too familiar. Like most of my ex-comrades, dawdling or hopelessly lost on the Long March Through the Institutions, I alleviate any pang of competitive comparison by thinking: huh, Stalinist hack. Which is unfair: he's moved way to the right of "communism" (what was that, grandad?) these days... [5] Mi-aow!

So, will I be attending HowTheLightGetsIn? Um, no. Even though I notice Aaronovitch (not to mention Terry Eagleton or, crikey, Anna Soubry) will be participating in a number of what promise to be lively discussions there. The mystery to me is quite who the festival audience is, people who are willing to spend upwards of £158 for four days camping in a field, in order to sit in on discussions of "Metaphors of the Mind", "The Illusion of Now", or "The Mathematics of Thought", even if (especially if?) followed by nights of partying, live music, and "experiences". It's as if the planning of a Master's degree had somehow fallen into the hands of the organisers of an Oxbridge-style Commemoration Ball. I suppose, if I wanted to revive some shreds of ambition, the thing to do would be to blag a ticket and find out who they are for myself by actually interviewing some of them, and then write an amusing, insightful piece accompanied by my own excellent photographs, for submission to some national publication. Quite likely I'd learn something new by sitting in on some of the sessions, but mainly, naturally, I'd be "networking" and handing out flyers and business cards for this blog and my website left, right, and centre. Which, it goes without saying in this Brave New World of Ambition, would be considerably more focussed on promoting the Brand of Me than they are.

Perhaps I'd even go up to my old mate Dave, and re-introduce myself, and we'd have a memorable evening of catching up (as well as partying, live music, and "experiences"), opening up a whole new world of influential connections – for me, anyway. Heh... No, I think not. I know better, these days, than to enter any room where ambition is the currency, knowing that I no longer set any value on anything which is traded in there, and that nobody in the room will be interested in anything I have to offer. I'm not even that competitive, these days. Instead, my sympathies lie with Omar Khayyám, as voiced by Edward Fitzgerald:
But leave the Wise to wrangle, and with me
The Quarrel of the Universe let be:
  And, in some corner of the Hubbub coucht,
Make Game of that which makes as much of Thee
Or, to adapt Rumi, Hendrix, Cohen, and doubtless a dozen others: Somewhere beyond right and wrong there is a pub with a garden by a river. I'll meet you there. And don't be late.

View from Hay-on-Wye car park

1. Strange, isn't it, how so many who used to sneer at Leonard Cohen are fans, now he's dead? The reference is to the song "Anthem": "There is a crack in everything / That's how the light gets in".
2. I think people don't believe me when I say this, but it's true. This old post gives a reasonable account.
3. One of the downsides of ambition is the desire to be identified prominently with a cause. The university had lost patience with the disruption caused by a wave of occupations and demonstrations in 1973, and took every opportunity to purge the student body of what I expect it identified as "ringleaders". Failing exams, of course, is asking for it.
4. Perfectly normal, of course, in those pre-internet, pre-mobile phone days.
5. But then, haven't we all? There are a few hold-outs for the Old Ways, like the proverbial Japanese soldiers in the jungle, some of whom have gone on to achieve a certain prominence, but most of us (the best of us?) lack all conviction: surely some revelation is at hand? (Come on, class! Keep up! Yeats?).